Public info group sets agenda for the future

By: 
Wyoming News Exchange

By Ramsey Scott

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange

 

CHEYENNE — The government transparency group formed by Gov. Mark Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines met again Monday to lay out the agenda for the next few months and to keep an eye on the horizon for larger issues.

The Financial Transparency Working Group, formed by Racines and Gordon in the final months of the 2018 campaign, spent Monday listening to stakeholders including representatives of special districts, and outside transparency groups like the Equality State Taxpayers Association.

Gordon and Racines have already racked up a major win when it comes to the credibility of their efforts. Racines resolved an open lawsuit made against previous State Auditor Cynthia Cloud to release state purchasing records by releasing the data after two months in office.

Racines also refunded thousands of dollars in fees her predecessor had charged the Equality State Taxpayers Association and OpenTheBooks.com, operated by Chicago-based American Transparency.

But the transparency group now is in the midst of working on the best avenue to get governmental records on financial transaction out into the public. Racines said the Auditor’s Office is in the midst of building its own platform for data that would allow it to be searchable as well as downloadable. She said years worth of transactional data would be available soon on the auditor’s website, with the goal of releasing new data on a timely basis.

But a major question the group discussed Monday is the value of just dumping information out into the public. While people want access to information, those who participated in the meeting wondered if putting out data without context or ways to dig into the background of the transactions was beneficial to anyone.

“Is there a fear in the reporting agencies on whatever level, from top to bottom, of too much information without (explanation)?” asked Marguerite Herman, a member of the Wyoming League of Women Voters.

Racines agreed that context can help clear up confusion. She related a discussion she had with representatives from water and sewer districts who heard from angry members of the public who, after analyzing public records, demanded to know why there were chemicals in the water. In reality, those chemicals were used to purify the water and make it safe for drinking.

“I think to some extent, absolutely, because information is always better with context,” Racines said.

One place the group discussed where context could be beneficial is with the state budget. Members and observers seemed to agree that context to budget numbers, places that are seeing cuts or increases and the like, can help people understand real-world implications of state action.

Another area of discussion was adding the variability and volatility of the state’s CREG report, the twice-yearly forecast of the state’s finances. Including in the report a better explanation of the forecast and the likelihood of numbers changing could help people understand exactly the basis for decisions made on the state level, said John Masters, a Cheyenne-based lawyer who is part of the transparency group.

Gordon expressed interest in pursuing those suggestions and said the group would dig into that further in future meetings.

Another issue the group would be dealing with in the near future is educating state and local government entities on the new public records bill, Senate File 57, which Gordon signed into law Friday. A major decision coming up soon is how a new ombudsman position meant to shepherd public records requests that meet resistance should be selected.

Several outside stakeholders asked for the group to be included in the selection process.

One issue that looms on the horizon for the group is diving into instances of no-bid contracts being given out across the state. Several observers pointed out this was a major issue in Wyoming, with millions in state funds going out to contractors without evidence of projects going out to bid.

Gordon said that issue would take a lot of investigation and should be something the group continues to come back to throughout the year.

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